Hanging On The Edge Of A Cliff: Update On The Middle East
The Military Situation: Escalation Beyond Lebanon
Sam Ghattas of AP reported at 5 p.m. (EDT) that Israel increased the level of its attacks against Lebanon with their biggest offensive since the 1982 invasion, imposing a naval blockade, attacking Beirut’s airport twice, and hitting two army bases close to Syria. Israel’s army chief, Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz said “nothing is safe” in Lebanon. All cities and especially Hezbollah offices and residents were targets.
Hezbollah has also kept up its pressure, firing more than 100 rockets into Israel, one of which might have hit the city of Haifa. “The Shiite militant group denied it had rocketed Haifa, where no injuries were reported,” Ghattas reported, but Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. called the attack “a major, major escalation.”
“Israel has concrete evidence that Hezbollah plans to transfer the two Israel Defense Forces soldiers abducted Wednesday to Iran," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday.
"We have concrete evidence that Hezbollah plans to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran. As a result, Israel views Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran as the main players in the axis of terror and hate that endangers not only Israel, but the entire world," AFP quoted Deputy Director General of the Foreign Ministry Gideon Meir as saying.
Forbes reported that Israeli analysts have warned that Syria it could be the next target. Syria supports Hezbollah and plays host to Hamas' political leader Khaled Mashaal. “But that seemed unlikely in the absence of a provocation,” the article said.
While Israel holds Lebanon responsible for the raids, “Hezbollah fighters operate with almost total autonomy in southern Lebanon, and the government has no control over their actions. But Lebanon has long resisted international pressure to disarm the group.”
OC Northern Command Lt.-Gen. Udi Adam said Thursday evening that the army has hit hundreds of targets in Lebanon since Wednesday night. Adam added that Israel has not ruled out sending ground forces into Lebanon. He told reporters that even Northern Command had come under Katyusha fire during the day. "I imagine over time that we will be able to rid ourselves of this threat entirely," he said.
Tap Dancing On The International Stage
President Bush defended Israel's attacks but expressed concern about toppling the fragile Lebanese government. "Israel has a right to defend herself," Bush said at a news conference in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Every nation must defend herself against terrorist attacks and the killing of innocent life."
Western countries, Russia, and the United Nations called for restraint and demanded the return of the soldiers. The Arab League called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday, while the Lebanese Cabinet urged the U.N. to intervene, but all they got was a promise by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to send three veteran U.N. officials to the area to try to defuse the crisis.
In a turnabout from last night’s response, The European Union “criticized Israel for using what it called "disproportionate" force in its attacks.” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he too was planning a peace mission.
Although there has been no media response or analysis, a review of comments by moderate Arab governments showed relative restraint, “apparently reflecting a sentiment in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that Hezbollah — and by implication its top ally Syria — had started the fight with Israel.”
On the other hand, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel's Lebanon offensive "is raising our fears of a new regional war" and urged world powers to intervene.
The Analysts Begin To Weigh In
Forbes reports that Israel appears to be using the current crisis to strike a decisive blow against what Haaretz military correspondent Zeev Schiff called an "extreme foursome" — Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
"What's off Israel's agenda is as significant as what's on it. The dual crises in Gaza and Lebanon have all but killed what was until recently Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's top policy initiative: to withdraw from most of the West Bank in order to ensure a long-term Jewish majority for Israel."
"Katyushas and Qassam rockets, not demographics, now look like Israel's most pressing threat," wrote Aluf Benn, political correspondent for Israel's Haaretz daily.
Today’s Jerusalem Post ran an article, “Analysis: Hoping the Ripples Reach Teheran.” Reporter Herb Keinon wrote, “Lebanon is the pond, the IAF bombs are the stones, and the hope in Jerusalem is that hurling enough of those stones into the Lebanese pond will produce a ripple effect felt as far as Teheran.”
The idea is that if Israel makes things difficult enough for Iran’s proxy, i.e. Hezbollah, Iran may get the right message. Over the past two days, Israeli spokespeople have continued to claim that the Hezbollah raid had changed the rules of the game.
“One of the rules of the game that Israel wants to change is that Iran has free rein to use its terrorist proxies to make Israel bleed at a whim.”
Some question whether international pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear projects might be at play. “There are few ways easier to divert the world's attention than opening up another front. Which is what Iran has done. Indeed they have opened up two fronts, just as the question of the Iranian nuclear issue is reaching a critical peak.” However, Keinon and others doubt that Israel is ready to take Iran on directly, but they have argued that Iranian Republican Guards are in Lebanon directing Hezbollah actions and those soldiers could be targeted.